Review: BIG LOVE by Charles Mee, Texas State University
by Michael Meigs


What goes around, comes around. Not only in the sense of retribution, but also as recycling and renewal.


I reviewed a production of Charles Mee's Big Love when CTXLT was but a blog. Turns out that Caleb Straus's 2009 staging was at Texas State University. And now, thirteen and a half years later, director Allison Price has renewed the work at the same university—in the same locale, but in a theatre turned inside-out in the interval. After construction of the epic Patti Strickel Harrison performance center, the Texas State theatre center's inside amphitheatre was converted into a spacious theatre in the round.


As for recycling: Big Love is based in large part on the very oldest work of Greek drama, Aeschylus's The Suppliants. In the two-volume, 2400-page compendium The Complete Greek Drama, The Suppliants begins on page 7.


Ella Kriegel, Rachel Arguello, Mariah Epps (photo by Lauren Jurgemeyer)Aristocratic rulers, brothers to one another, have decided that the fifty daughters of one must marry the fifty sons of the other in a great ceremony. Even ancient Greeks may have found this to be patriarchical overreach. The young women flee, all sailing to another kingdom, where they seek protection. The piece by Aeschylus, apparently the first installment of a trilogy, ends there. Greek legend, recorded elsewhere, provides the rest of the action: when refuge is refused, the women vow to murder the fifty bridegrooms on their wedding night. And they succeed, except for one case in which love intervenes.


Mee's retelling retains forty-seven of the affronted brides offstage but represents them with three of their number. Each is necessarily an archetype, but the three women actors armed with eloquence and exuberance quickly become vividly alive personalities. First to appear is Lydia, exhausted, dressed in white wedding finery and dragging a suitcase. Ella Kriegel steps into the cavernous space of the mainstage in the round, gazes around an enormous room where walls are defined by cords dangling multicolored glass tiles; her exquisitely timed, silent and suspenseful wander around the playing area brings her full circle around a bright porcelain bathtub at center stage. She sheds the wedding gown and collapses gratefully into the tub. After another long moment a waif-like young man appears and tentatively greets her. It becomes evident during her uncertain exchange with Giuliano that Lydia, thinking this was a hotel, has blundered into a family mansion.


Similar confusions and opposed assumptions characterize this piece. Lydia and her sisters are seeking refuge, preferably asylum; their male cousins seek to assert their heriditary and contractual rights to possess the sisters in every sense of the verb. The women's status in the mansion is ambiguous; ruling male Piero and his mother the matriarch Bella take the three women in without promises; three of the male cousins appear after a thundering helicopter pass, drop their gear and harnesses with a menacing clatter, and step forward to claim their . . . prey? Piero soothes the confrontation and avoids conflict by inviting the men to discuss matters—offstage.


Sammy Arungwa as the inscrutably courteous, deep-voiced Piero and Savannah Downing as Bella, his mother, speak with Caribbean inflections despite Piero's occasional quick exchanges in italian with William Ellis as Giuliano. This blurring of geograpical setting suggests the universality of the work's themes. 


(New Yorker cartoon, James Thurber, ca. 1930)With these elements locked into place, director Allison Price endows the reworked ancient drama with the urgency and agony of what writer/humorist/cartoonist James Thurber once depicted as "The War between Men and Women." With the audience almost entirely composed of Texas State University students, Price uses music, chants, crisp action, exclamations, and outright tantrums to emphasize the soul-wrenching dilemmas of women and men who are facing off against one another.


Playwright Mee assigns lengthy monologues to key characters both to illustrate their emotional states and aggressively to argue points of view. Price's pairings in the cast resonantly evoke contemporary gender concepts.  Lydia is reason, politeness, determination, and self-regard, while her designated suitor Nikos (Diego Arroyo Aceves) is tenative, a bit dreamy, and unassertive; the tall, sharp-spoken Constantin (Maxwell Hanesworth), an avatar of aggressive masculinity and advocate of male primacy, is paired with Thyona (Mariah Epps), who's compact, focused, eloquent, threatening, and equally insistent on autonomy; and joyfully sensual Olympia (Rachel Arguello) has been assigned in wedlock to Oed (Wade Smith), her reticent, perhaps sexually ambiguous cousin.


At Thyona's urging, the women, overcome, vow to murder their new husbands. In a violent, dazzlingly kinetic finale, all but one do so.


In Greek legend the myth of the suppliants (the Danaids, daughters of Danaeus) culminates in the trial of the only woman who fails to fulfill that bloody vow. She is absolved, for Aphrodite, goddess of love, defends her. Mee assigns the public defender role to Bella, the matriarch. Savannah Dowling delivers that lengthy defense with serene, lilting precision. A blackout is followed by the flash view of Lydia, confused and perhaps overcome.


This staging of Big Love offers a continual succession of strong images in which characters are captured against one another in a largely neutral playing space. The tub at center stage serves repeatedly as a useful prop, resting place, even as a makeshift tomb. There is some action up a stair to an elevated platform on the south side, but events there are disadvantaged by distance—particularly Bella's striking monologue describing, successively, her many sons. The promotional photographs of the three female leads are somewhat misleading; the bloody frolic depicted in them does not occur and is less interesting that the events so powerfully depicted onstage.


A bit of additional background, cribbed from the 2009 CTXLT review:

Charles Mee proclaims himself a "reworker." His website makes available the texts of his own plays, including this one, for potential transformation and re-use.  He explains the concept:  "Please feel free to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don't just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the internet, and build your own, entirely new, piece--and then, please, put your own name to the work that results. "


For Big Love, Mee acknowledges Aeschylus as his principal source but not the only one. "Big Love is also inspired by, or takes texts from, Klaus Theweleit, Leo Buscaglia, Gerald G. Jampolsky, Valerie Solanus, Maureen Stanton, Lisa St Aubin de Teran, Sei Shonagon, Eleanor Clark, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Kate Simon, and Laurie Williams, among others."

You won't find any of the above information in the Texas State program for Big Love, directed by Caleb Straus. 

The 2023 program for Big Love, directed by Allison Price, also omits mention of the mythic origins of this curious tale. In effect, she follows Charles Mee's counsel to build her own, entirely new piece. It was vibrant with the hormones, clashing views, and intensity of our own era's war between men and women—a notable achievement.



Click to view the program for the 2023 Texas State production of Big Love

Click to view photos and comments of Big Love cast members



Big Love
by Charles Mee
Texas State University

All week,
April 03 - April 08, 2023
Texas State Theatre Department
430 Moon Street
San Marcos, TX, 78666

Mariah Epps, Elle Kriegel, Rachel Arguello (photo by Lauren Jurgemeyer)April 3 - 8, 2023

Monday - Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

Monday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, April 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Friday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 8 at 2:00 p.m.


430 Moon Street, 78666

The chamber is GENERAL SEATING (first come / first seats)



General admission: $15
TXST Student: $10
Group (10+): $13
Prices include processing fee.

Since this is about entertainment, we want to make sure you know what to expect in your evening with us in hopes of curbing some possible frustrations.

Performances begin promptly on time.

The doors to the chamber will open approximately 30 minutes before the performance.

Because of the intimacy of main stage, once the doors are closed NO ONE will be allowed in. Unfortunately, there are NO EXCEPTIONS.

For GPS purposes, the address to Theatre Center is 430 Moon Street, San Marcos, 78666. (The round brick building.)

Parking will be directed to the Edward Gary Parking Garage (directly behind the Performing Arts Center).

Thank you for supporting the return of live theatre!

Contact: Texas State Presents | 512-245-6500